BELFAST -- Northern Ireland's legislature, dormant for 3 1/2 years, reconvenes today so its members can try to form a Catholic-Protestant administration, the elusive goal of the Good Friday peace accord forged amid high hopes eight years ago.
But even as the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly take their seats and reprise well-honed arguments across the Stormont Parliamentary Building floor, their work is overshadowed by the slaying of a Catholic teenager, the latest of more than 3,600 deaths in the four-decade conflict over this British territory.
Michael McIlveen, 15, is to be buried today just hours after the assembly meets. Members expect to hold a minute of silence in his honor, and could cut proceedings short so that lawmakers from his predominantly Protestant hometown, Ballymena, can attend the funeral.
Within weeks, the lawmakers are supposed to try to elect a cross-community coalition. Several previous diplomatic efforts have failed to revive the power-sharing administration that governed Northern Ireland sporadically until its collapse in October 2002 over an Irish Republican Army spying scandal.
The British government warns it will pull the plug on the assembly for good if both sides cannot come together by a Nov. 24 deadline. But hopes are running low that the major Protestant group, the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, will cooperate with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has warned that his party could withdraw from the assembly long before Nov. 24 if the Democratic Unionists veto power-sharing. But Paisley says he will not budge unless the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein accepts the authority of the province's mostly Protestant police force -- both monumental hurdles that the Sinn Fein-IRA movement appears unlikely to clear by the deadline.
Paisley said he will not even negotiate directly with Adams, much less share a Cabinet table with him, until this happens. ''My principle says to me you don't negotiate with terrorists," he said.
Both sides' politicians agree on one point: The May 8 killing of McIlveen demonstrates how bitterly divided this society remains despite the 1990s cease-fires by the IRA and its Protestant paramilitary enemies. The truces have reduced politically motivated bloodshed to a trickle, but done little to ease grass-roots hatred.